As Technology Overloads Our Environments, Handcrafted Design Has Emerged to Offset It

handcrafted

In the last installment of “Trend Alert” (see the March-April issue), we explored some of the tools and methods by which the construction industry is changing based on technological innovation. Although at times slow to embrace new technologies that alter the way things are done, the industry is in many ways being forced to deal with the accelerated pace at which automation moves—and it’s reaping the benefits of reduced costs, improved efficiency and greater accuracy.

Framed wedding invitations and baby announcements adorn the wood-cladded elevator lobby at Match.com—a handcrafted touch that helps warm the space and welcome guests. PHOTO: Thomas McConnell

Framed wedding invitations and baby announcements adorn the wood-cladded elevator lobby at Match.com—a handcrafted touch that helps warm the space and welcome guests. PHOTO: Thomas McConnell

Simultaneously, a decidedly more “low-tech” trend is happening within commercial buildings that has the effect of offsetting the deluge of digitization that has invaded every facet of our lives. Inspired by handmade crafts, artisans and makers, interiors have seen a swing back toward the tactile and imperfect characteristics of one-off pieces that beckon occupants to press pause on their electronic devices and to touch, feel, and experience the physical spaces around them.

Given the proliferation and penetration of mobile technology today, whether it’s for professional or personal use, it’s no wonder a move toward more raw, tangible items is taking place. If you consider the fact that the average smartphone user today picks up or touches his or her device 2,617 times per day, spending 145 minutes browsing it during 76 unique sessions, according to a Business Insider report, it’s evident that our use of technology has gone askew.

Establishing Equilibrium

Invariably, human beings tend to seek balance when the scales tip too far to one side, and that’s in part why we see this handcrafted trend taking root in interiors today.

“A lot of it feels almost like a reaction to just the sheer inundation of technology,” explains David Holt, design director at IA Interior Architects in Seattle. He observes that between handheld devices, computer screens, and oversized TVs and monitors in lobbies and restaurants, digital displays have become too pervasive in the spaces we inhabit. As a result, the emergence of more tactile and natural elements in building materials and furnishings has been born out of “a reaction to try and recover some kind of balance against that,” he says.

Author, consultant and speaker Holley Henderson, LEED Fellow, Fitwel Ambassador, WELL AP, and founder of The Common Sense Environmentalist, agrees and says it’s important to offset technical and programmatic components within a building with human-centered elements to ensure they are complementary rather than competing.

“When you’re creating an interior, you are thinking about counterbalance and you are thinking about the programmatic requirements in that space and you’re thinking about what is it that the user needs,” she explains. “When it’s a convention center and people are moving through the space and everything is so active, as a convention center designer, you’re thinking, ‘OK, what can I do to create moments of respite and moments of reflection and moments of calm and peace for these people?’”

The same thought process applies to busy airports or even corporate environments, Henderson says, where the goals are to move people through a space efficiently or increase productivity, which need to be counteracted with natural or tactile features that also allow for occupant comfort and create a more grounding effect to the busyness around them.

Throughout the three floors of Match.com’s headquarters, informal spaces and a game room lend a relaxed aesthetic to the workplace that invites employees to unplug. PHOTO: Thomas McConnell

Throughout the three floors of Match.com’s headquarters, informal spaces and a game room lend a relaxed aesthetic to the workplace that invites employees to unplug. PHOTO: Thomas McConnell

Chris Currie, LEED AP BD+C, a project designer at Lake | Flato Architects, San Antonio, and a recreational craftsman (see “The Artisan’s Perspective”, page 3), points out that while the trend toward the handmade certainly holds value as a counterweight to digital overload, it doesn’t diminish the value of technological tools. “We use BIM software and Revit, and I don’t know if we could do the drawing sets that we end up cranking out without that software, so I certainly have a lot of appreciation for the technology.”

But even the best-laid plans sometimes come up short and, in those cases, a low-tech solution may be the best approach. Henderson offers the example of a building in which not every occupant can be given a view to the exterior, which can be a real challenge in existing buildings even when designing to LEED or WELL guidelines. “What could you do with a handcrafted element that can make occupants feel like there’s a storytelling element and some human, organic, memory recall of the natural world? I think designers would be very receptive to that kind of thing: ‘OK, I can’t do a window. I can’t get any natural light [into this space], but what could I do?’ And that’s, to me, where a handcrafted item could really help.”

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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